Singapore offers sophisticated dining options up the wazoo. For many a foodie, however, the beating heart of the Lion City’s culinary scene is found not in the perfectly pressed linen and polished service of its upscale eateries, but in the cheap, tasty dishes of the hawker centers that dot the island.
Hawker centers are the designated places where, mid last century, the government relocated all the traditional street food vendors. The rest, as the saying goes, is sweet-pungent-spicy-stir-fried history. There are over 200 centers island-wide and, from kaya toast, chilli crab and carrot cake to satay, soy sauce chicken and sambal stingray, they keep the heritage of Indian, Indonesian, Malay and Chinese street food alive, one dish at a time. Come mealtimes (some even open for breakfast), they pack out with punters clamoring for their favourite foods.
The repertoire of dishes is massive and the open-air vibe, super casual. Claim your seat by plonking a pack of tissues on a vacant one; you’ll likely have to table-share with complete strangers but that’s half the fun. Then trot off to join the happy throngs waiting to order from their preferred stall. Gaudy melamine plates, help-yourself accompaniments and disposable utensils are the order of the day. Unless specified as “self service”, staff deliver meals to your table so remember the table number when ordering. The best part? These places are CHEAP. And the food, generally, is amazing. Singaporeans take their chow so seriously that their standard greeting isn’t “how are you?” but “suda makan” or, “have you eaten?” So - have you? Here’s a starter-pack of worthy centers to get you in the fast-food groove, Singapore-style.
Maxwell Road Hawker Center, 1 Kadayanallur Street. Nearest MRT station: Tanjong Pagar
With a stellar Chinatown location, this spacious center is popular with locals and tourists alike. Of the stalls, Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (stall #01-10) allegedly serves the best chicken rice in town. Marina South Delicious Food (#01-35) is recommended for char kway teow, while the pork noodles from Guangdong Wan Ton Mee (#01-99) get a big thumbs up. As do the deep fried prawn fritters from China Street Fritters (#01-64), which are the stuff of crispy-crunchy shallow-fried dreams.
Old Airport Road Food Center, Block 51, Old Airport Road. Nearest MRT Station: Dakota
One of the oldest and largest centers, this requires a dedicated trip as there’s not much else to see around here. But the hit list of famous stalls and the authentic, staunchly local vibe make it worth the schlep. Tofu fans can certainly rejoice - Lao Ban Soya Beancurd (#01-127) reputedly serves the islands’ finest. Then there’s Tao Payoh Rojak (#01-16) for exemplary rojak (a refreshing, crunchy, fruit and raw vegetable salad slathered in thick, sweet sauce), Katong Ah Soon (#01-07) for fried oysters and Nam Sing (#01-32) for Hokkien mee. Oh and Blanco Court Kway Chap (#01-135) for their rich, fragrant braise of piggy parts (intestines, skin and meat) served over broad rice noodles.
Lau Pa Sat, 18 Raffles Quay, Nearest MRT Station: Raffles Place
Touristy? Yes. But throw ‘beautiful’, ‘historic’, ‘architectural’ and ‘centrally located’ into the adjective mix and it becomes clear why. A national monument since 1979, this striking landmark building is smack in the middle of the financial district and, with its lacy iron-work details and soaring columns, is the prettiest hawker center ever. There are 54 stalls and 19 mini restaurants. Stall 31, called Thunder Tea Rice, offers the dish of that name, a healthy mix of rice, vegetables, various garnishes and a green sauce-come-soup made from herbs and peanuts that’s served separately. Noodle Evolution (stall 29) serves their own noodle creations, like herbal duck bee hoon and garlic mushroom noodles. The Beef House (stall 17) does a stupendous beef ball soup and Mohamed Restaurant (stall 61) is a popular place to try iconic roti prata. In the evening, satay vendors start sizzling their sticks outside and things really heat up a notch or two.
East Coast Lagoon Food Village, 1220 East Coast Parkway. Nearest MRT Station: Bedok
Situated 15km out of town (combine a visit here with the Changi Museum), East Coast Lagoon has it all... a fabulous, breezy beach-side location, a casual kampong (village) atmosphere and Roxy Laksa (stall 48), a legendary exponent of Singapore's greatest gift to the culinary world. Roxy still use freshly made coconut milk in their broth (sadly a dying practice). Of the dozen satay stalls, Haron 30 Satay (stall 55) is the one to make for. Leng Heng BBQ Seafood (stall 6) dishes up a feisty pepper crab... and grilled giant sea prawns that are the size of the average fore-arm. Fans of the quacker will adore Cheok Kee’s Duck Rice (stall 29) while the knees of pork-lovers are guaranteed to turn weak over noodles slathered in sticky char siew (bbq’d pork) sauce from Hwa Kee BBQ Pork Noodles (stall 45). Note that most stalls open in the afternoon.
Tiong Bahru Food Center, 30 Seng Poh Road. Nearest MRT Station: Tiong Bahru
The first hawker center built in a housing area, mid-century architecture freaks will find the building as exciting as the fare. Airy and laid-back, there are a heap of stalls to choose from here. You shouldn't leave Singapore without eating chwee kueh (steamed rice flour cakes slathered in an explosively flavorsome topping made from preserved radish, chilli and dried prawns) and Jian Bo Chwee Kueh (#02-05) makes a particularly tasty version. Speaking of kueh (or “cake”), Tiong Bahru Teochew Kueh (#02-02) craft traditional ones that locals swear are just like their aunties used to make. The meatless bee hoon dish (fried rice stick noodles) from Ru Yi Vegetarian is legendary (#02-26). As are the tow kwar pop (bean curd puffs with sweet prawn paste sauce and peanuts) from the stall of the same name at #02-06. Check out the adjacent fresh food market, for a slice of local shopping action.
Balestier Food Market, 414 Balestier Road. Nearest MRT Station: Toa Payoh
This is an old and interesting part of town with lots to recommend. Including some venerable open-air restaurants along Balestier Road and more than one excellent hawker center. This one, right on the main drag, was recently converted from an old wet market and feels particularly spruce and light. Locals swear by Ah Hui Big Prawn Noodle (stall 13), which uses huge Ang Ka prawns in its rich prawn noodle soup. Their dry prawn noodle dish, tossed with plenty of spicy sauce and pork crackling, is wondrous. King’s Roast (stall 8) cooks an exemplary pork belly, with lush, fall-apart flesh and particularly snappy crackling. If you’ve not eaten popiah, then get to Miow Sin Popiah (stall 6) - they've been making this gossamer-fine stuffed pancake for over three decades and needless to say, theirs is textbook perfect. With popiah skins rolled tight around fillings that burst with vegetables, egg, prawns and other flavorsome morsels, these guys have won awards over the years.